“How many of you have tried drugs or alcohol?”
“Does wine count as alcohol?” asks one of the 6th graders.
“Yes,” Carole Harris tells the student.
More than half the group of 10 students raises their hands.
The students from Oak View Elementary School sit on the dusty ground at the Huntington Beach Equestrian Center to talk drugs, alcohol and temptation.
The week prior, bullying was the topic of conversation — some of the kids said they had been bullied at school, while others admitted to being the bully.
The following week they discussed gangs — something that affects many of the children who live in the Oak View neighborhood.
These talks are a safe place for students to open up and talk about the issues they face in their life.
Weekly lessons learned are reinforced by something that is fun and new to these students — horse therapy.
Harris, a licensed psychotherapist, founded Horse Nation last year as a two-fold effort to rehabilitate abused and neglected horses while giving low-income children in Huntington Beach a chance to experience something unique.
“This is exciting for these children to be here,” Harris said. “They are learning responsibility — they groom the horses, pick their hooves and walk them. They take care of them.”
Horse Nation partnered with the Huntington Beach Police Department’s Mounted Unit to equip children from the Oak View neighborhood with skills to face the many challenges they’ll come across in their adolescent and adult years.
HBPD, along with Rainbow Environmental Services, also helped pay for the $7,500 program as part of its community outreach efforts.
Oakview is a square-mile community bound by Warner and Slater Avenues, Nichols Lane and Beach Boulevard.
The historically troubled area has been known for gang activity and juvenile crime, but a push to rehabilitate the neighborhood and offer more resources for the families who live there has been gaining momentum.
Horse Nation is another program aimed at breaking the cycle some of these children could fall victim to.
“This is just a good way for us to get out into the community,” said Officer Kurt Stoecklein, with the HBPD mounted unit. “This helps break barriers with the families and people who live in the Oakview neighborhood.”
After their drug and alcohol discussion, the children interact with the horses.
Yaneli Isidoro, 12, plays with the hair on a white horse with a wavy mane named Snowman. She looks at ease as she touches the gelding’s nose and gently tugs on his ears.
“The first time I came in here I was hugging my cousin; I was scared,” she said. “But now I like it.”
The students split into groups and are given a task that involves the horses — another teaching moment.
The students set up alleys using PVC pipes on the ground and place buckets containing food for the horses in the pathway.
They are asked to label the buckets with distractions they encounter in their lives and are expected to navigate the horse through the alleyway without the horse stopping for food.
“What’s a distraction?” Alexis Ramos asks Stoecklein. “Can I say girls?”
“Yeah, you can say girls,” Stoecklein says, obviously stifling a chuckle.
“Girls think they are such smarty pants,” Ramos says as he grabs a marker to write his distraction on a roll of duct tape. He tears off the strip of tape and sticks it to one of the buckets.
Group by group, the students walk their horses through the alley and around the buckets of food.
Most of the horses make it through, but a couple can’t resist the feed in the buckets and go in for an afternoon snack.
Whether the children were successful in the exercise was not the point.
Stoecklein, and the other members of Horse Nation, hoped to instill a lesson that will enrich the students’ lives.
“This program gives these children life skills,” Stoecklein said. “We want to make a difference in the community and the process starts with these kids.”
Horse Nation is looking to fundraise for its next series of classes. Visit www.horsenationafoundation.org for more information or to donate.